Geopolitics

Turkey In Iraq, Erdogan Reveals His Sunni Agenda

After its standoff with Moscow over the downed Russian fighter jet, Ankara is making waves with its troop presence in Iraq. But Turkey does not want Shia militia to be the heroes to "rescue" Mosul from ISIS.

Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers training near Erbil, Iraq
Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers training near Erbil, Iraq
Fehim Tastekin

-Analysis-

ISTANBUL â€" Turkey's government, which likes to consider itself a "regional power," has forced the country back under the protective shadow of NATO (where it was during the Cold War) thanks to an unplanned crisis with Russia. In the face of Vladimir Putin's unabating rage after the shooting down of a Russian plane, the limits of Turkish geopolitical ambitions have been exposed.

And yet despite such a troubling crisis, the government in Ankara now finds itself in a standoff with another pivotal country: Iraq, with Turkish military sent troops to a training camp in Bashiqa, north of the Iraqi city of Mosul. Baghdad's immediate response: Pull your troops back within 48 hours or we will employ every alternative â€" including going to the United Nations Security Council. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded Thursday that he has no intention of withdrawing troops.

Although the height of the tension is now largely passed, it is a reminder of Turkey's errors in Iraq, including then Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's visit to Kirkuk without notifying Baghdad, and bypassing the Iraqi authorities while transporting Kurdish oil. More crises are sure to follow.

Those in power in Ankara who use the term “dynamic foreign policy” act surprised again. The political climate that leads to the shooting down of a Russian plane for barely entering its airspace, also somehow forgets about another country's sovereignty as they march tanks into their territory to build a base just up the road from Mosul.

Turkey's official explanation for its new military presence around Mosul is that the former governor Esil Nuceyfi asked for help to combat ISIS. Davutoglu, now the Turkish prime minister, discussed the matter with Iraqi President Haider-al Abadi in Baghdad on Dec. 20, 2014. Then Turkey started training with the approval of the Iraqi government. But Iraq says that Turkey's actions go well beyond troop training and that the military transfer was made without notification.

Baghdad has insisted that any training of anti-ISIS forces must be done through the Iraqi defense ministry. "This condition applies to everyone but Turkey disregards it,” an Iraqi source told me.

Even the United States, which has a comprehensive security and cooperation deal with Iraq, does not treat Baghdad like Turkey has. For example, the U.S. and its western allies send aid to Kurdistan's government via Baghdad.

Of course, Turkish military presence in Iraq is not a new thing. There are Turkish soldiers at many points along the border, most notably in Bamerne. There are also military liaison offices in Sulaymaniyah and Erbil. The Turkish military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan has roots going back as far as the first Gulf War.

Ankara insists that their current aim is limited to training Peshmerga fighters and other troops in the area, but it seems that their presence turned into what amounts to a small Turkish military base, judging by the tank concentration.

My Iraqi sources say there was simmering tension over payment claims for the troops in Bashiqa, but I believe there are deeper political conflicts. It could be one or more of the following factors:

Maybe Turkey wanted to say "I play a part in the Middle East game, too," and make itself more visible near Mosul after Moscow used the downing of the Russian plane to undermine Turkish military plans in Syria.

Maybe the Bashiqa military presence is an act of intimidation to the Kurdish forces present in the area.

Maybe it's an expression of Turkish ambitions as "the new Ottomans" wanting to be among the forces to rescue Mosul.

Maybe this is all about the security of the oil deals made with the Iraqi Kurdistan government.

Still, it is hard to understand what the end game is. We may easily be wrong again, just as we were in assuming Turkey would never dare shoot down a Russian plane over "rules of engagement."

Ankara's foreign policy has shifted to follow a Sunni sectarian line, and the Iraqi government and people who were driven away from their homes in Mosul blame Turkey's allies in the area for the fall of Mosul to ISIS.

Turkey does not want Shia militia and Iranian forces to enter Mosul â€" the U.S. is on the same page on this score. But the question has become: "Who will rescue Mosul?"

The pro-government media of Turkey claims the military of Mosul disbanded because they were all Shia and did not want to defend the city. It is also claimed that the Popular Mobilization Forces are all Shia and that they are under the command of Iran.

The Shia represent 65% of the Iraqi population. The Sunnis are very much a minority if you do not include the Kurds among them. Those who do whatever they can to alienate the Shia do not do much to encourage the Sunni clans to rise against ISIS.

The Iraqis I talk to â€" who includes ethnic Turkmens, natural allies of Turkey â€" say the Popular Mobilization Forces are fighting for Iraq, of which Mosul is a part. "All Iraqis are there to save Iraq," says one source. "That includes the Shia and the Sunni, the Christian and the Muslim. It is not anybody's place to say the Shia are not welcome."

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Migrant Lives

The Other Scandal At The Poland-Belarus Border: Where's The UN?

The United Nations, UNICEF, Red Cross and other international humanitarian organizations seems to be trying to reach the Polish-Belarusian border, where Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is creating a refugee crisis on purpose.

Migrants in Michalowo, Belarus, next to the border with Poland.

Wojciech Czuchnowski

WARSAW — There is no doubt that the refugees crossing the Belarusian border with Poland — and by extension reaching the European Union — were shepherded through by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. There is more than enough evidence that this is an organized action of the dictator using a network of intermediaries stretching from Africa and the Middle East. But that is not all.

The Belarusian regime has made no secret that its services are guiding refugees to the Polish border, literally pushing them onto (and often, through) the wires.


It can be seen in films made available to the media by... Belarusian border guards and Lukashenko's official information agencies.

Tactics of a strongman

Refugees are not led to the border by "pretend soldiers" in uniforms from a military collectibles store. These are regular formations commanded by state authorities. Their actions violate all rules of peaceful coexistence and humanitarianism to which Belarus has committed itself as a state.

Belarus is dismissed by the "rest of the world" as a hopeless case of a bizarre (although, in the last year, increasingly brutal) dictatorship. But it still formally belongs to a whole range of organizations whose principles it violates every day on the border with Poland.

Indeed, Belarus is a part of the United Nations (it is even listed as a founding state in its declaration), it belongs to the UNICEF, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and even to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Photo of Polish soldiers setting up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Polish soldiers set up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Maciej Luczniewski/ZUMA

Lukashenko would never challenge the Red Cross

Each of these entities has specialized bureaus whose task is to intervene wherever conventions and human rights are violated. Each of these organizations should have sent their observers and representatives to the conflict area long ago — and without asking Belarus for permission. They should be operating on both sides of the border, as their presence would certainly make it more difficult to break the law.

An incomprehensible absence

Neither the leader of Poland's ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczyński nor even Lukashenko would dare to keep the UN, UNICEF, OSCE or the Red Cross out of their countries.

In recent weeks, the services of one UN state (Belarus) have been regularly violating the border of another UN state (Poland). In the nearby forests, children are being pushed around and people are dying. Despite all of this, none of the international organizations seems to be trying to reach the border nor taking any kind of action required by their responsibilities.

Their absence in such a critical time and place is completely incomprehensible, and their lack of action raises questions about the use of international treaties and organizations created to protect them.

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